NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — More than 67,000 fans returned to a full capacity Nissan Stadium for the 2021 season opener with high expectations for a Titans team coming off an AFC South title and with several key additions in tow. By the time those fans left, the vast majority before the 38-13 Cardinals win became a final, you couldn’t blame them for thinking, “we waited all offseason for that?”
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The handoff to Derrick Henry on the first play of the game went for a loss of three, leading to a quick three and out. Kyler Murray hit DeAndre Hopkins for 38 yards on Arizona’s first play from scrimmage after Jackrabbit Jenkins fell down, setting the tone for the day.
After the Cardinals got a field goal, Henry ran again for a loss of one to start the next drive. Then on the second play the Titans left Chandler Jones unblocked on a bootleg and the former All-Pro pass rusher swallowed up Ryan Tannehill, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Corey Peters who stumbled into the end zone. Replay ruled Peters down at the one, but Murray again hit Hopkins, who was able to adeptly get two feet down in the back of the end zone in front of Jenkins for a touchdown. It was 10-0 Arizona less than 7:00 into the game.
Henry finished the day with just 57 yards on 18 carries, after averaging less than a yard per touch into the second half. Tannehill completed 21-of-35 passes for 212 yards, but also turned the ball over three times. Two fumbles courtesy of Jones’ sacks, and an interception on a ball forced into traffic that went off Julio Jones’ hands in the third quarter.
Chandler Jones was dominant with a career-high five sacks, two coming on identical speed rushes on star left tackle Taylor Lewan in the first quarter. He added four tackles for loss, sending a message after the Cardinals refused to give him a new contract in the offseason after injuries limited him to just five games last year. Meanwhile, the Titans’ Jones had a forgettable debut in the two-tone blue. Julio caught just three passes for 29 yards, and failed to come up with contested catches – in the end zone, late in the first half and on the interception – that he has been known for throughout his Hall of Fame-worthy first decade in the league.
The vaunted pass catching duo of Jones and A.J. Brown combined for just seven catches and 78 yards, and left the Titans having to answer questions about the offense’s workload in the preseason. Tannehill, Henry, Brown and Jones didn’t play a snap in the exhibition games, and the offensive line didn’t line up together until just this week. Did that make the difference Sunday? It certainly didn’t help.
The Cardinals were the better prepared, more physical and more hungry football team. They took it to the Titans in their own building, looking very much like the contender that the home team was expected to be.
Second-year quarterback Kyler Murray looks like a MVP candidate. He dazzled early and often, extending plays with his legs and dropping pinpoint passes to an impressive quartet of receivers that includes Hopkins, a bonafide Titans killer that joined a new team and still grabbed six catches for 83 yards, a former All-Pro in A.J. Green, and exciting youngsters Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore.
Murray threw for 289 yards and four touchdowns, two each to Hopkins and Kirk, and also ran in a score on a beautiful bootleg in the second quarter. And once again the Titans defense was left without answers as Arizona racked up 416 yards and went 7-for-13 on third downs with Murray buying time, avoiding the pressure and allowing his receivers time to get open and make a play.
It’s just one game, and this year the NFL schedule expands to 17 games, so there is plenty of time for the Titans to turn things around. It should be expected that they will. Tannehill, Henry, Brown and Jones are too talented. Lewan and this offensive line aren’t as bad as they looked. And not many teams in the league have a QB as dynamic as Murray.
But next week calls for a trip to Seattle, where the Seahawks have their own MVP-caliber quarterback in Russell Wilson, who threw four touchdowns of his own Sunday for an offense that averaged a yard more per play in a 28-16 win over the Colts than the Cardinals did against the Titans.
Things need to get fixed in a hurry. Or 0-1 will turn into 0-2 as fast as Sunday’s game spiraled out of control in the first quarter. And while even another loss may not signal that it’s time to panic, it will definitely be cause for concern for a team that looked nothing like the contender it is expected to be in week one.